Without free press, we would know a lot less

Published 8:50 am Thursday, July 8, 2010

The real value of a free press in American life is being demonstrated dramatically these days, from the Gulf of Mexico to Afghanistan and Washington, D.C.

As the Gulf oil spill — with its political turmoil and environmental impact — continues to spread, there are disputes over how much oil has leaked, whether the cleanup is working, where sea-borne slicks are headed, and how much damage the spill is doing.

Daily news reports are keeping us informed about this unprecedented disaster, even though it has been claimed that BP and the federal government have not been all that forthcoming or accurate in their news briefings.

Email newsletter signup

Some news reports also cite incidents of reporters’ and photographers’ being blocked by the company or government agencies from the worst areas of the spill. A June 9 report by The New York Times documented several instances in which journalists were prevented from flying over the spill area, or were denied access to beaches and other places where the oil has washed ashore.

For its part, BP says any extreme restrictions on the news media in the Gulf are an “anomaly.” A company spokesman said that “our general approach … has been to allow as much access as possible to media and other parties without compromising the work we are engaged on or the safety of those to whom we give access.”

There have been claims that the government and BP initially underplayed the size and significance of the spill and the likely extent of environmental damage. Given that uncertainty about what’s true, independent journalism — not government pronouncements or company news releases — remains the most-credible source for the nation for the latest on efforts to plug the leak and mitigate coastal and offshore damage.

There’s no question we want news about the oil spill. In a survey released June 22, the Pew Research Center reported that 63 percent of Americans “followed news about the oil leak more closely than any other story last week.” And 56 percent said the press “has done an excellent or good job in covering the leak.”

Another story that captured recent headlines concerns a “spill” of another kind: A lengthy article in Rolling Stone magazine that shows broad dissatisfaction on the part of President Barack Obama’s now-former chief general in Afghanistan about a range of administration policies and personalities.

Although an earlier policy disagreement between Obama and Gen. Stanley McChrystal had been documented in news reports, the magazine story provided an important look behind the scenes at a much wider disaffection between this military leader and his civilian bosses at a critical time in the Afghan war effort. Nothing of the sort had come out of the White House or Pentagon, to be sure.

In both cases, it is the news media — through either day-by-day reporting on the spill or a single profile piece containing dramatic revelations — that are keeping us informed well beyond anything we would get from official sources.

Both of these news stories are a far cry from what news-media critics complain is a modern-day focus on celebrity news and other fluff that’s easy to report and market. Both stories involve the kind of watchdog journalism that the First Amendment protects from government control or direction. It’s not a stretch of the imagination to picture both stories being blunted or blocked in other nations for reasons of “national security” or “national interest.”

No doubt the disclosures of flaws, foibles and failures in dealing with the BP oil spill and the war in Afghanistan complicate the administration’s response to both. But in the end, it’s the public that will decide via the ballot box about how well or poorly each has been handled.

Access to credible, independent sources of information — in other words, information from a free press protected by the First Amendment — serves the public well in that decision-making process.

Gene Policinski is vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, D.C., 20001. Web: www.firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail:gpolicinski@fac.org .